The Labor Question

Maria Sanford, who was a history professor at Swarthmore at the time, gave this address at the July 24, 1878, session of the Pennsylvania Teachers’ Association meeting.1 Given the topic, it’s notable that Sanford had previously also taught a Junior course on John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, possibly supplemented with lectures about American Whig economist Henry Carey.2

The burning of Pittsburgh’s Union Depot during the 1877 Great Railroad Strike

Labor issues were quite salient in 1878 Pennsylvania. An 1873 financial panic had precipitated a severe recession that struck railroads especially hard. With the growing importance to the economy of permanent wage labor, this downturn became America’s first experience of widespread unemployment.3 Workers’ reaction led to the country’s first major labor action, the 1877 Great Railroad Strike, which was contested with particular bitterness in Pennsylvania.4 Coming only a few years after the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, Americans feared the prospect of Marxist-inspired labor violence.

Sanford analyzes the situation, not as an economic question, but through her audience’s perspective as citizens and teachers. She frames the underlying dynamic as a centuries-long struggle between the privileged few and the mass of humanity, which America’s founders had hoped to overcome by giving all a share in government. Republican Rome, however, offers a lesson in how growing wealth inequality can lead the privileged abandon respect for labor and the cultivation of republican virtues in favor of the pursuit of greater wealth. She argues that America could suffer the same fate unless the founders’ principles are adapted to the new conditions, so long as the adaptation does not lead to anarchy and to equality at a degraded level. Sanford briefly addresses the rioting laborers, whom she sees as having followed a small number of agitators, before turning her attention to the wealthy. Although she won’t condemn wealth per se, she is strongly critical of those who disdain labor, pursue idle wealth, and perceive themselves as better than ordinary workers. This group represents a greater threat to American society and its republican government.

The Labor Question

I shall not attempt in this brief hour an exhaustive analysis of the question which may rightly be considered the most important one not only of our politics but of morals and of social life. It is a question demanding the profoundest thought, and the most careful study, not of statesmen alone, but of every citizen, and especially of those whose business it is to form the character, direct the thought and awaken the conscience of the rising generation. It is then in its relation to us as citizens and as teachers that I shall speak this morning of the Labor Question, desiring most of all to bring home to the heart a sense of its importance and of our personal responsibility concerning it. I but give my thought, hoping that in your minds it may awaken a better thought, and each speed on and on until a glorious work shall be accomplished.

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